Who are you writing for?
In high school my writing was always terse and to the point — as I saw it. I never received any grades better than C for it. I left high school with the conviction that I had better work where writing was not a requirement.
As a programmer I struggled with documentation over the years. It was a rather loathsome task that I considered a distraction from coding–something I loved. Then one day I received a manual that covered assembly programming for a new micro processor. Technical manuals are usually prime examples of terse and abstract writing that take genuine effort to pursue read, let alone comprehend. Yet this one document, while highly technical, spoke to me. It engaged me and led me down a path of gradually understanding the intricacies of assembly language. It guided me and let me know where I was, what I had learned, and how it all fit together.
This experience unsettled me, and led me to question what made “good” writing. Surely there are many prerequisites that are essential for good writing — structure, terminology, and consistency are all important. But what is it that keeps one reading?
Naturally, there is no simple answer to this question. But it highlighted the fact that whoever wrote this book understood the way I think. From the beginning, the book let me know why its content mattered, and it communicated thought processes that were both accessible in their structure as well as challenging to my mind.
This is the lesson that I took away from this experience, evolving it over the years and decades: always ask “‘who am I writing for; who is my reader?” As a consultant I write for technical people as well as business people, project managers as well as marketers. Every time I sit down to write I ask myself these questions. I engage with all of these people to understand how they understand and think, and I try to adapt my writing to interest and challenge the thinking of the person I am writing for.
If you don’t know who you are writing for, you will be writing for no one.